August 2008


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Archive for August 22nd, 2008

Hitchens – God is not Great XI

Friday, August 22nd, 2008 by Elgin Hushbeck

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Last time in my extended review of Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great” I discussed the opening example in Hitchens’ Chapter on how religion can be hazardous to health.  Even if it did not have the problems that I pointed out last time, Hitchens admits that this is an isolated case.  So he attempts draw a more coherent link by pointing to “Cardinal Alfonso Lopez de Trujillo, the Vatican’s president of the Pontifical Council for the Family carefully warning his audience that all condoms are secretly made with many microscopic holes, through which the AIDS virus can pass.”


When I tried to check this claim, I found many articles where the Cardinal said that the AIDS virus could pass through microscopic holes in condoms, however, nothing that supported the claim that these holes were secretly being made in condoms. 


This example reveals two problems, one with Hitchens, and one with science. I had originally started to write this as three problems, the third being the Cardinal’s error and in fact I went back and forth several times as to whether or not there was an error on the part of Cardinal. 


In an interview the Cardinal said, “In the case of the AIDS virus, which is around 450 times smaller than the sperm cell, the condom’s latex material obviously gives much less security.  Some studies reveal permeability of condoms in 15% or even up to 20% of cases. In a report he cites the evidence he believes backs up this claim.


In one respect this whole controversy was much to do about nothing, as there is virtually universal agreement that condoms are not 100% effective. There is also broad agreement that failure rate is between 10 – 15 percent. This controversy was more over the reasons for the failure rate, not the failure rate itself.  Even here there are some semantic games going on, as one of the tests of condoms is a leak test, and again it is virtually universally agreed that not all condoms made can pass this test.


To focus on minor points that do not materially affect the major points is called quibbling.   To focus on whether one of the reasons for the failure rate in condoms is microscopic holes, when there is general agreement on the failure rate itself, is quibbling at its finest.


The problem with Hitchens is not only is he quibbling, he presents this as if there were no controversy at all and that Cardinal López Trujillo’s claims are on par with those who claim the US and UN are part of conspiracy to sterilize true believers in Islam by means of a polio vaccine.  One does not have to agree with the Cardinal’s position to see that this is at best a tremendous exaggeration, and that is being charitable.


This is a common problem with atheist in general and neo-atheists in particular. They have a very black and white view of things and if you are religious and disagree with their view of the evidence, you are automatically in the realm of the superstition and irrationality.


The problem with science is more complex.  In a perfect world, questions like this would simply be a matter of evidence. Experts could look at the evidence and render a verdict of yes, no, or inconclusive with the latter needing more research to resolve.  But one does not need to believe in Adam and Eve, to realize that we do not live in a perfect world. 


It is not, as Hitchens claims, that religion that poisons everything, it is far more general: people poison everything. In this case, scientists are people, and thus science is tainted by all the problems possessed by all other human institutions.  In this case science has become politicized and thus cannot always be trusted.


While organizations such as the CDC issue reports on the safety of condoms, others question their objectivity.  As the Cardinal pointed out in one interview, “groups representing 10,000 doctors” accused the CDC of covering up research on problems with condoms.


The research that the group, the Physicians Consortium, claimed that CDC was suppressing showed that “condoms are 85 percent effective in helping prevent the spread of HIV” and even worst for other sexually transmitted diseases.


The real problem here is that the dispute is not really even a scientific one, though it is often cast as such. Again there is general agreement that condoms have a 10-15 percent failure rate.  The dispute is over whether or not this failure rate constitutes safe sex.  That is inherently a judgment call not a scientific one. Granted some protection is better than no protection, but condoms are not recommended on this basis, but on the notion that sex with condoms is safe sex.


To make matters worse, the problems in Africa, where most AIDS occurs, is much large and more complex than a lack of condom use. For example, one contributing factor is the myth in parts of Africa that unprotected sex with a virgin will cure AIDS.


Thus Hitchens’ attempt to link Cardinal López Trujillo’s statement on condoms with the claims of a few Islamic clerics concerning the polio vaccine fails miserably.  Hitchens may not like Cardinal López Trujillo’s solution of abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage, but when practiced it has a much lower failure rate than his solution.


This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.  

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